I’ll admit to being nervous in approaching this book. I love Jenny Pattrick’s rousing stories of colonial New Zealand communities and I’ve walked through the mud with her characters. Like many others I was introduced to her books through Denniston Rose and Heart of Coal and Denniston became part of my mental map. The same thing happened with Landings, and Catching the Current. Pattrick offers lively characters as guides to explore our colonial history.
Her new book, Harbouring, is set amid the NZ Company’s arrival in Wellington and the establishment of the colony there. Hence the nerves. Two years ago I published Jerningham. It’s the same story, wrought from the same material. What would an expert storyteller like Pattrick make of it?
Well it turns out–and of course I already knew this–that every story has a million faces. This is what I love about historical fiction and history generally. First thing you gotta know is: Who’s telling the story?
In Pattrick’s version, it is a Welsh family. Huw Pengellin is a very different cut of man than my Jerningham, not one of the elite but a man from the foundries chancing a get-rich-quick scheme for Colonel William Wakefield to save his impoverished family. His wife Martha, after more misfortune at home, joins him in Wellington with their son Alfie: the ‘pure wee elf’ as his dad calls him, his draig–little dragon. Huw sees Wellington in a very different context than does Jerningham, who himself appears in Pattrick’s story as an entitled ‘young pup’. Fair enough, he absolutely was.
There is no doubt that I can recognise everything I know of early Wellington in this story. The towering trees and roughly cut roads, shining harbour full of ships and gutsy weather. There is bureaucratic bumbling, land sales and deeds changing hands with a wink and a shuffle, shifted survey pegs. People from home arrive to reinvent their lives. There are very real friendships with Māori—love and misunderstandings, too. Huw’s wife Martha takes up the story. She struggles in a growing and dependent community, making her new life up with whatever is at hand and surviving the challenges, just. Hineroa, too, is a storyteller in this novel, a young Māori woman stepping out of slavery into an English world, looking at the colonising of Wellington from another viewpoint again, wanting to find her own place and not knowing where that might be.
Dicky Barrett, Mein Smith, Evans and Dorset, Shortland and Spain, all feature in the story along with the full cast of Wakefields. Te Puni and Wharepouri , Te Rauparaha and Te Rangihaeata are all here. They weave their way through their tale to Wairau, the same path I followed in Jerningham, leading to the same, sad, inevitable conclusion.
It does seem that no matter who is telling the story, what their perspective is and how differently their life rubs along day-to-day, there are some things that all look the same in hindsight. Stupidity. Poor judgement. Unbridled testosterone. Lack of vision. Welcome to early Wellington.